Bourbon takes it name from Bourbon County, which in turn was named by the early pioneers in honour of an American revolutionary war veteran, General Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette, a French aristocrat from the Royal House of Bourbon. Deep in the American South, Bourbon County is now a region in the state of Kentucky, and from where the majority of today's distillers are based, and from where bourbon has been made since the early 18th century.
Times were hard and austere for the settlers of America, but distilling bourbon from their farmed corn and grain, gave them a much-needed and lucrative income. But in these more primitive times, the spirit produced was known as 'white dog', an un-aged clear spirit of dubious quality compared to our refined bourbon choices on our shelves today.
In 1782, a true pioneer, entrepreneur, preacher and Reverend, Elijah Craig purchased 1000 acres of land, had 600 of his worshippers from Virginia establish a town which became Georgetown, and in 1789 founded his distillery in what later became Woodford County. He is widely credited with one of the most important developments of the drink's history; the first to age his whiskey in charred oak barrels, thereby mellowing the white dog over time and imparting flavours of the wood; vanilla, honey, caramel and oak, a taste unique to bourbon. Labelling their corn based whiskey as bourbon set their spirit apart from the rye whiskies competing from the east of the county.
Bourbon can be distilled throughout the United States and must be corn based with a minimum 51% content. Other grains which may be included in their varying quantities are malted barley, rye, and wheat. These are mixed with water to create a mash bill, and a mash from a previous distillation is added to ensure consistency, and this is known as a sour mash, where yeast is added for fermentation before distillation.
Traditionally, bourbon was distilled in an alembic pot still before the introduction of continuous stills. Today, most bourbon producers distil firstly using the more efficient column still distillation and then re-distil through what's known as a thumper, or doubler, a type of pot still which will produce to the highest alcohol strength permitted of 80%.
The white dog spirit of a maximum 62.5% alcohol content is then aged in new oak barrels that are charred. Used only once, the barrels are then sold to barbecue sauce makers, Scottish whisky distilleries, tequila distilleries and rum producers the world over. The charred oak gives the spirit it's colour and wonderful flavours, largely imparted by the caramelised sugars in the charred wood, and according to the mix of the sour mash originally chosen. The longer the white dog is rested in barrels, the more flavoursome and dark the bourbon.